The Calvetti Bridge can easily go unnoticed. It is not an architectural marvel, just a narrow, barely 14 or 15 metres long, rundown bridge over a stagnant waterway. But then this bridge is the most famous, the most strategic, among the five bridges that once connected British Kochi to the State or the native state.
On the bridge, a mingling of the stench from the torpid canal, the aroma of spices wafting in from the bazaar, and the distinct smell of the backwaters hits you. A lone country craft lies anchored close to the canal wall. This bridge, across the Calvetti canal, separated Fort Kochi, once under British control and native state directly under the Maharaja of Cochin. Till as recently as the late 1970s all the products of the region – spices, rice bamboo, vegetables and fruits – arrived by country boats to the many godowns or warehouses located close to the canal. The canal, bridge, the whole Calvetti area was abuzz with activity.
In the past huge boats and barges reached the busy harbour that was located at one end of Calvetti. The crowded streets throbbed with life as merchants loaded their wares on to the waiting boats. Trade flourished and there was a long line of trading houses, belonging to the British East India Company, which dotted these streets. This waterway that flowed under the bridge, was the link to the distant lands across the seas.
Calvetti has been spelt differently by various historians and many also differ on the meaning and origin of the name . So we have this place referred to as Calvathy, Kalvathy, Calvetty in various books and publications. “It is believed that Calvetti came from the Arab word Havat, which means open or vacant space. History records the advent of the early Moplahs to Cochin. They found an open space to build a mosque and gradually they inhabited this area which gradually took the name Calvetti,” says M.A. Aboobacker, Retd. Deputy Development Commissioner and Director (Retd.) Kudumbasree, Central Region.
The Madras Manual of Administration interprets the word Calvetti to mean stone cutter. But V.K. Raman Menon, who has supplied an exhaustive note on this subject, writes that the name means hangman’s canal or island from the Malayalam word kazhu ettuka or impale. In fact, impalement, not hanging, was the ancient mode of execution. And executions took place close to the Calvetti Canal. (Ref. Travels in India by Jean Baptiste Tavernier).
“I remember that a canal too existed here for the boats that passed through the Calvetti Canal. And this was there till the 70s. I have heard that permits were required for people to cross the bridge to go to British Cochin. The State area, the present Mattancherry, was crowded. There were thatched houses, godowns and a busy market. Living conditions on this side of the bridge were terrible as mentioned in William Logan’s Malabar Manual. He writes about the ‘insanitary moplah quarter of Kalvetti.’ And this area was a standing menace to the health of the place with cholera and smallpox periodically ravaging the area . After the Great Fire of 1889 that destroyed godowns and the houses, a law prohibiting construction of thatched houses came into being,” informs Aboobacker.
History lurks at every corner of Calvetti, almost every building on either side of the bridge has tales that can fill up pages of Kochi history. The Fort Kochi branch of State Bank of India that has a history of over 100 years, the Calvetti Mosque, the trading company buildings, the first wharf, the Calvetti Bridge itself are historic places that dot this area.
“This was the place where Vasco Da Gama landed. The British side of the bridge had some top class shops that was usually frequented only by them. There was a hotel, built by the Dutch, active during the British rule, but stopped functioning after the housekeeper complained that he did not have funds to maintain it. There used to be flagstaff and a traveller’s bungalow. The Imperial Bank, trading companies, godowns, the busy canal, goods being brought in boats and barges, Calvetti was a fulcrum of trade and commerce,” says V.N. Venugopal, local historian.
The bank building, established in 1862 as the Bank of Madras, as a branch of one of their Presidency Banks, was Kerala's first ever commercial bank. It later merged with the Imperial Bank of India in 1921 and in 1955 became State Bank of India. In his work Flashes of Kerala History, historian K.L. Bernard adds that the palatial bank building was earlier the Calvetti Palace. “There is an account of how Rani Gangadhara Lakshmi, the first and only woman ruler of the erstwhile Cochin State, who was watching a fierce battle against the Dutch being fought in front of the palace, was captured by Henrick Van Rheede (A Survey of Kerala History by A. Sreedhara Menon),” adds Venugopal.
K.J. Sohan, chairman, Town Planning Standing Committee, Corporation of Cochin, says that the Calvetti Bridge was and still is a link between two diverse worlds; different ‘socially, culturally, politically.’ He also recounts some interesting incidents. “These days when there are debates on prohibition, it is significant to note that after Mahatma Gandhi’s proclamation for prohibition the once British Cochin area implemented it to the letter. Toddy shops were picketed and shut down. There was total prohibition. On the other side of the Calvetti Bridge this was not in force. So those who wanted a swig or wanted toddy for their appams had to either go the other side, drink and return. There was always the risk of being accosted by the police on the Fort Kochi side. People also used to smuggle toddy across the bridge.”
There is this popular song by H. Mehaboob who never tired of singing about Kochi. It spoke of those days when trading companies flourished and sprouted at Calvetti.
“Pierce Leslie, Aspinwall, Volkhart, H&C, Madura Company, Bombay Company... ” Mehaboob lists most of them. He sings of the huge ships that came in and took away our rubber, coir, spices, tea and of the busy, crowded bazaars. All this is memory now. Most buildings in this area and the roads leading to the Calvetti Bridge are protected sites. But the historic bridge, in urgent need of repair, however does not come into this category. “The bridge certainly needs to be maintained. What we require are strong byelaws that will help such conservation initiatives. Perhaps even the State Bank of India can think of exhibiting the historic artefacts, like the ledgers that are now authoritative documents in Indian banking, antique weights and measures which they have in their possession. They will reveal so much about the history of Kochi,” feels Sohan.
Keywords: Calvetti BridgeHidden histories column,


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